Kei Nishikori’s impressive performance in winning the Barcelona Open for the second straight year and the withdrawal of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic have made the Shimane native the favorite at this week’s Madrid Open.

Nishikori tore up the field in Barcelona last month, losing just one set in five matches on the way to the title. Despite not playing his best against Spain’s Pablo Andujar in the final, Nishikori still prevailed in straight sets 6-4, 6-4.

Madrid, where Nishikori had to retire with a back injury last year while seemingly on the way to victory over Rafael Nadal, will provide a tougher test with Djokovic the only player in the world’s top 10 missing from the field.

The tournament in the Spanish capital may well be a defining moment for Nadal this time around. He got lucky last year when Nishikori came up lame, but his poor showing in Barcelona, where he lost in the third round to Italy’s Fabio in straight sets, has many wondering whether he still has the game to win a 10th French Open.

After missing several weeks last season due to injury, analysts now are identifying a lack of power in Nadal’s forehand as a key concern ahead of the year’s second Grand Slam. Despite ultimately winning Roland Garros last season after his uneven play on clay, his recent form make the questions about his game legitimate.

Meanwhile, with each passing week it seems that Nishikori is garnering greater recognition around the globe for his play. Match Point asked Barry Flatman of the London Sunday Times, one of the most prominent tennis writers in the world, for his thoughts on Nishikori’s climb up the ladder in rankings and respect.

“Patience has been necessary but I think we are now entering the period where Nishikori can truly legitimize all the potential he has unquestionably possessed since he first emerged on the world scene,” stated Flatman, who has covered the ATP Tour since 1992.

“He is now stronger, both mentally and physically, and the boost in self-belief he gained from reaching the U.S. Open final last year is now there for all to see,” Flatman said. “A lot of people thought he could be a very good player, now were are seeing confirmation of those claims.”

Flatman, never one to pull a punch, breaks down Nishikori’s game succinctly.

“Nishikori’s strengths are his ball striking, very hard and accurate, his technical expertise and his ability to wear down the opposition,” Flatman noted. “His weaknesses are still a question mark over his physical durability (resilience against injury) and the fact his concentration can still wander at times.”

Flatman, who was the inaugural president of the International Tennis Writers Association, puts a great deal of the 25-year-old Nishikori’s development to his personal growth.

“The great improvement over the last two years is basically down to maturity and the fact he is now more comfortable in his own skin,” commented Flatman. “Before he was something of a novelty and seemed to be very much aware of all the hype centered around him. Now he seems to have accepted all the interest and is no longer distracted by it. Plus, of course, the presence of Michael Chang in his support team has been a massive positive influence.”

Flatman claims that Nishikori, currently ranked No. 5 in the world, has earned the respect of his fellow members in the top 10 with his play.

“The top players are not really saying too much about him and there is good reason for that; they now see him as a massive rival,” Flatman said. “There is of course utterances of respect and acknowledgement that Nishikori, by virtue of defending his Barcelona title, must now be viewed as a contender on clay.”

There was skepticism about Nishikori’s game up until last summer’s U.S. Open, according to Flatman.

“The world’s media were not really sure about Nishikori until New York last year, but he built on that reputation, did well at the ATP Finals in London, and now for the first time is being viewed as a contender for the French, although of course it is still largely perceived as a two-horse race between Djokovic and Nadal,” Flatman stated.

With clay courts almost tailor-made for Nishikori’s combination of skill and athleticism, Flatman has him contending for the title at Roland Garros starting later this month.

“I see Nishikori as somebody who can go a long way at Roland Garros,” Flatman said. “His draw will obviously be a massive factor but I see him as a potential semifinalist. However do I see him winning? No.

“Why? Because I am convinced this is Djokovic’s year to win the one Grand Slam title that has always evaded him.”

Book giveaway contest: The Japan Times is offering several readers the chance to win a copy of the recently released Japanese book “The Road to Top” about Kei Nishikori and his rise to become one of the best tennis players in the world.

The autobiography traces Nishikori’s life from his days as a youngster playing in Shimane Prefecture to his appearance in last year’s U.S. Open final.

The book covers the many challenges the superstar encountered along the way, including the surgery on his right elbow that sidelined him for most of the 2009 season.

The 370-page tome, which quickly became a best seller, was written with veteran tennis writer Hidehiro Akiyama and published by Bungeishunju.

Several pages of color photos are included showing Nishikori at various stages of his career.

To enter the drawing for the books, please send an email with your name and address to: sports@japantimes.co.jp with “The Road to Top” entered in the subject line.

The contest is open to both domestic and overseas readers.

Making progress: Taro Daniel won the first Challenger title of his career last month on clay in Vercelli, Italy. The Japanese-American beat Italian Filippo Volandri 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.

Daniel, whose father is American and mother is Japanese, was born in New York but lived in Nagoya as a youngster. He now resides in Valencia, Spain, where he is coached by Jose Altur.

The 22-year-old Daniel, who stands 190 cm, is currently ranked 169th in the world. He was on Japan’s Davis Cup team for last year’s World Group quarterfinal tie with the Czech Republic.

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